“A Contest Of Wills and Wiles” by Karim Raslan

off all the pieces about che det recently, this one stands out! hehe

Tuesday May 20, 2008

A contest of wills and wiles


The ‘race’ between Anwar and Dr Mahathir could well see Abdullah edging past at the finish line.

MALAYSIA’s King Lear exits stage left.

“Die-lah, Karim. Pak Lah has declared war on Dr M.” Not bothering even to say hello, the man spoke quickly. His voice was low and it was clear that he’d been drinking.

“What to do, my friend?” he asked.

“Nothing-lah, Datuk. We just wait. We watch carefully and see what happens.”

“But Dr M is using the race card. This is not good. Nanti we all hancur. We all kena!”

“Datuk it had to come to this. This isn’t about Pak Lah. There’s unfinished business. It’s about ’98: it’s about Anwar and Dr M but if they’re not careful Pak Lah will be the one who pulls through.”

This is it. The mother of all Malaysian political battles. The contest of wills between Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is like a Shakespearean tragedy crossed with pro-wrestling (only there are no rules and no referees). Both men are brilliant and charismatic – thriving on the kind of brinksmanship that unnerves mere mortals, witness Dr Mahathir’s surprise announcement yesterday that he was quitting Umno.

They are certainly not transitional figures like Abdullah. The ultimate prize for this battle that is ripping apart Malaysia’s fragile, outmoded national consensus? No less than whose version of what our future should and could be prevails.

The irony of all this is that their egotism may lead to the man they both despise, Abdullah, edging past them at the finish line.

But first, let me explain the Manichean conflict between the two men and their ongoing struggle for the Malay soul.

In one corner is Dr Mahathir. With strong echoes of “Che Det”, his famous teenage nom-de-plume, he remains as vitriolic as ever, lambasting the Malays for their continuing backwardness.

Judging from his recent rhetoric in Johor Baru, he remains the most powerful and unambiguous advocate for the “ketuanan Melayu” agenda.

On the other, we have Anwar: elegant and erudite if intellectually fluid, a man whose Obama-like oratory reaches to the heavens only to leave us confused by what he actually intends to do.

Still, having been pilloried publicly and then incarcerated for over six years he has emerged from prison as an icon: a man who suffered for us and is therefore, inexplicably “beyond” mere accountability.

The transgressions of his past have long been forgotten; which brings me to an important footnote. If Khairy Jamaluddin or any young aspiring politician is really serious about leading Malaysia they must show us the lengths to which they would sacrifice themselves for the national interest because as Anwar has revealed, a stint in prison has become “the” badge of honour, dividing the men from the boys.

Still, Anwar’s vision for Malaysia is enthralling and it offers a degree of hope for those disillusioned with the old order. His radical agenda envisages a nation governed not by racial antagonisms but genuine socio-economic concerns, in short, by class.

But this won’t be easy to bring about: how will he manage the ethnically segregated civil service and security forces? How can he resolve the grievances in Sabah and Sarawak? How will he tackle the issue of Malay rights as enshrined in the Federal Constitution?

Sadly, Umno is missing from this debate about the fundamentals of our society. Having ruled unchallenged for so long they now lack the intellectual capability, the courage and the energy to lead.

Dr Mahathir understands this and like Shakespeare’s aging tragic hero, King Lear, he bemoans the faithlessness of his “wayward” children cum followers from Umno.

He knows how weak and indecisive they are and he knows the extent to which they fear change and the loss of their privileges. Indeed, his surprise resignation from the party is not unlike Lear’s angry exit from the safe confines of the palace onto the open heath in the midst of a tumultuous thunderstorm.

The question then is twofold: whose vision is best suited for the nation and, who can win over those blockheads in Umno?

Last month, as I watched Dr Mahathir on BBC’s Hardtalk, I couldn’t help thinking that he isn’t the man he used to be. Certainly he looked physically weaker, but more seriously his incessant attacks on Abdullah have taken a toll on his own credibility and standing – indeed the relentlessness of his fury had diminished him as a leader. One couldn’t help but draw parallels to his vilified Zimbabwean compatriot, Robert Mugabe.

Moreover it’s by no means clear if his obsession with the Malay agenda to the exclusion of all else (basically all “other” Malaysians including non-Muslim bumiputras) is wise strategy. Can Umno afford to alienate the non-Malays now? March 8 demonstrated that it does so to its own perdition.

Dr Mahathir cannot comprehend that the articulation of Malay rights has been debased by those who were tasked to lead the community.

With every ill-conceived mansion built by an Umno division chief, the party’s credibility sank further. Who in the right mind believes the pro-Malay rhetoric of Umno’s leadership now?

Which brings us back to Anwar and Abdullah.

Frankly, a return to the primordial world of Malay dominance is doomed to failure. Furthermore, recent electoral trends seem to suggest that many (if not the majority of) young Malays are equally sceptical of Umno’s self-aggrandising rhetoric.

At the same time, Anwar must prove that in his “restoration” he will be a Mandela-like figure, a force for reconciliation and not vengeance. If he can pull it off, then his accession to power will be enhanced.

For Abdullah and Umno the only viable option is straightforward: appropriate the reform agenda and “steal” Anwar’s policies. Saturday’s visit to the Buddhist Maha Vihara in Brickfields to mark Wesak Day whilst long overdue, was a crucial gesture.

So as two men fight for soul of Malay community, the man who has lingered in their shadows for so long may well come unto his own.


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